Fresh tilapia, straight out of Fort Simpson is no fish story

Fresh tilapia, straight out of Fort Simpson is no fish story
Tilapia growing at Forest Gate Greenhouse and Gardens in Fort Simpson.Photo courtesy of Shelley Empey.

Fort Simpson’s Shelley Empey and her husband could not wait to buy the farm. Actually, the owners of Forest Gate Greenhouse and Gardens bought the land as it came, about two acres in all, and are gradually building the farm themselves.

“We’re still working on stuff,” she said. “It’s never ending. This was our second summer (but we) didn’t actually move onto the property until the end of May last year. The Greenhouse was up, house and garage were up before winter but we didn’t have time to do much. We built chicken pens, got a roof on the greenhouse and the solar greenhouse.”

Empey keeps a rooster and some chickens, which lay enough eggs to save the couple on groceries with a few left over to sell for feed, and just slaughtered six Bourbon Red heritage breed turkeys, which are more trouble than they are worth to keep through the winter. They weighed in at more than 20 pounds each.

“We’re going to get some goats and pigs from (the Northern Farm Training Institute) in the spring,” she said. “We’re still putting infrastructure together. The buildings are up and fish are in, but still working on trenches. We put up two hoop houses, too.”

The “invaluable” training Empey received from NFTI through the gardening/agriculture workshops the Hay River not-for-profit organization stages throughout the growing season has helped her set up her farm, which is anchored by a self-contained aquaponics operation.

Photo courtesy of Shelley Empey / NFTI.

Photo courtesy of Shelley Empey / NFTI.

They are the only ones in the north farming tilapia, a mild-tasting fish that likes warm water and takes about eight months to mature.

“If you leave them any longer they’ll actually get fishy tasting,” Empey said. “The system is totally contained. They like it in the high 80s and if it drops below 60 degrees they’ll die. We keep the water close to 90 and the greenhouse when we went out this morning was 86. All winter long last year we maintained at least 84.”

The tanks have their own heaters as well. If the water cools, the fish will become sluggish and will not eat as much, stunting their growth. The garbage compactors of the sea, tilapia will eat just about anything and they have free run during the summer, but in the cold months at Empey’s farm are fed a steady diet of commercial feed.

“If you put your hand in there, they’re like piranhas,” she said. “They all come to the surface and the water starts churning … it’s nuts and as they get bigger, they get even more freaky!”

Spring 2016 will be “very exciting” for Empey as the fish will get a new, bigger home and she will be welcoming honey bees from Ontario.

“We’re planning a grand opening where you will be able to obtain your bedding plants, hanging baskets, vegetable and herb starts, and we will have lots of different kinds of fruit plants for people to try.”

Empey said when she moved to Fort Simpson she wanted to set up a permaculture operation members of the public could visit. By the time she earned her “Northern Farmer” certificate by completing all six of NFTI’s introductory workshops (Spring Into Planting Your Seed; Design and Plant Your Sustainable Garden; Food Forests North of 60; Garden Maintenance & Marketing; Food Harvest, Preservation and Storage; and Intro to Small and Large Animal Husbandry), she wanted to feed the world.

“That’s how (NFTI executive director) Jackie (Milne) makes you feel,” she laughed, “that you are the answer to the food problem in the world.”

Empey said food costs are a major concern in Simpson: a single head of imported romaine lettuce is $9 at the local store.

“That’s just crazy,” she said. “Right now there is no road into town, you have to take a helicopter, so the prices get jacked up. Hopefully NFTI will have some different workshops I can go to in the spring. I need a bee workshop, because I ordered bees and beehives and I know nothing about bees. Or a cheese workshop, since I’m getting those goats. It’s hard though, since we have so much planted. I need more land!”

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